Preface: I said goodbye to my dear, 29-year old Saddlebred lesson horse, Stevie, last week. I'd known him for over half of his life - I met him at William Woods University in 1996, where I was a student and he was a donated lesson horse.
My dear, brave, sweet Stevie,
It's hard to imagine how reluctant I was to buy you, considering that we've had twelve years together. I still remember the first time I rode you my first semester at William Woods - it was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, and it happened right in front of world-famous riding instructor Gayle Lampe! We had to canter a figure-eight, my saddle slid sideways, you went hopping around, sporting a trimmed mane and nothing to grab onto, and you weren't interested in helping me one bit! You never did have much interest in figure work - you were a Champion Three Gaited Saddlebred with a mission to take those victory passes on your own terms, often leaving your young riders in the dirt as you trotted out of the ring with your blue ribbon!
You taught me a very important lesson that day - I had a lot to learn and I didn't ever want to ride you again! Your constant antics in the stall, your hunger strikes, your epic victory passes, your habit of eating students - you were a perpetual source of disruption in the William Woods barn, at the horse shows, and in the classroom as we learned that there are exceptions to every rule. Especially with Stevie.
So when Gayle Lampe called me the year after I graduated to ask me if I needed a lesson horse, because you were for sale, I told here that I was not interested in a lesson horse that eats students and bucks people off at horse shows. And she replied, "He doesn't do that anymore - he's older and more mellow now." Or something like that. But I was not a fan of the Getting Even Steven, so I told her, "No, thank you."
But a month later you were for sale again. The phone call went something like this: "Lisa, it's Megan, from William Woods - I bought Stevie, but I need to sell him because I'm taking a job that won't let me have a horse, and Ms. Lampe said you might want to buy him."
Sigh. Who was I to argue with Gayle Lampe? At least not twice, anyway! So I sent Megan a check and she put you on a trailer from Ames, Iowa to Oshkosh, WI.
By the time you stepped off the trailer in Oshkosh, you had taken all of your shoes off and ripped your tail out. You didn't have a mane the last time I'd seen you and it had grown in nicely - on the wrong (left) side. I don't really know what I was expecting.
But hey - I'm a lefty, too, so maybe we had more in common that I'd thought!
I quickly learned that mellow wasn't your style. But I admired your spirit, and thought I could teach you a thing or two, and we'd figure out how to teach lessons together. Ha! Turns out I was the one that had some stuff to learn, didn't I?
You were far more patient with me than I was with you. After all I was just a dumb kid and you already knew EVERYTHING, right? By the end of our first summer together half of my students hated you, and the other half were kind of afraid of you. But I was merely annoyed with you, and didn't figure I could convince anybody to buy you, anyway. So off to Colorado we went...
Where I quickly learned that you already had quite a reputation. When I proudly told the trainer I was going to work for in Denver that I was bringing a horse named Getting Even Steven, she startlingly exclaimed, "You can't bring that horse here! He's completely crazy! I've seen him try to kill people!" Whilst wrapping my head around the fact that you'd already made a name for yourself as an outlaw in the horse community to which I was scheduled to move the following week, I explained, "He doesn't do that any more - he's older and more mellow now." Whoa, channeling Gayle Lampe!
Many students and blue ribbons later, including Arizona State Pleasure Driving Champion, you were a local superstar, and turned that ugly old reputation for being naughty (mostly) on its head! In the eight years we taught lessons together, I had about as many people offer to buy you as ask me, "Is that old horse really worth all the trouble?" "No, he's not for sale," and "Yes, he most certainly is worth it!"
Our adventures were never boring - you had a way of taking any sure thing and adding a Stevie Twist, usually in the final moment! There was a surprise outcome to everything you did - you made me think on my feet! You were still teaching me how to train, teach, trust, and love while giving many young students the ride of a lifetime. You taught me a lot about hard work, determination, and courage. And that you don't do trail rides.
You were the original Energizer Pony - when the going got tough you never, ever quit. You had more try, more heart, and more soul than any horse I've ever known. You were also the sportiest, most athletic horse I've ever known, and I'm including your trail riding gymnastics and carrot-trick yoga games with all of those enthusiastic victory passes. And yours was certainly the proudest blue ribbon I ever received - Open English Pleasure Champion - when you were 20 years old!
I know now that you put up with all the beginner students, summer campers, and Halloween costumes because you liked hanging out with me. I was your mom, your cheerleader, friend, and your human counterpart. And if you behaved, you got to go to horse shows, where everyone could admire you as you trotted out of the arena with another blue ribbon. I remember watching you size up the competition before your classes - you really did know everything, didn't you?
Neither of us handled your retirement very well. Pasture life clearly was not up your alley, but you eventually learned to live outside in a "private" run - it was easier to torment your neighbors when you could actually reach them, anyway! The first time I caught you picking up your rubber feed pan to wallop the horse next to you, I couldn't help but belly-laugh, you were very seriously hilarious in your distate for horses not quite up to "Stevie standards". Which includes most every horse you've ever met. Especially geldings. And horses with spots.
I could write forever about my spunky little white-faced horse and our adventures, but I'm afraid any attempt to summarize your life, a life lived so powerfully, so purposefully, and so profoundly could only fall painfully short of describing the once-in-a-lifetime, larger-than-life, rockstar- superhorse-companion-partner-teacher-healer-and-friend that you were to me. So I'll stop here for now, but I'll write more later, because there's just so, so much more. I am honored to have had the privilege of sharing almost half of your life with you. Thank you for reminding me to laugh at myself, live with relish, love hard, and be myself, no matter what anyone else says or does.
I can't wait for our next ride, Love.
I said goodbye to my dear Stevie this week, just a month shy of his 29th birthday. While my heart hurts to think that I won't get a chance to scratch him under the chin or run my fingers through his mane again, I'm taking comfort in knowing that the days suffering in a body too old for his young spirit are finally over.
So many Stevie stories - I've written pages and pages about my "little horse that could", never publishing most of it, because there was always more. Stevie's life was a never-ending stream of anecdotes, where would I start? And he seemed to have nine lives - we'd had so many near-misses, so many rebounds, I figured his story would never end. I suppose it really hasn't!
I do know that Stevie's ability to overcome the impossible wasn't exclusive to his twelve years with me. There are thirteen previous owners listed on his American Saddlebred Horse Association registration papers before mine. I got to meet one of them in Colorado several years ago, and she recounted the story of how close she had come to putting Stevie to sleep following a seemingly unsuccessful colic surgery. She and her veterinarian couldn't seem to manage Stevie's pain with a common pain reliever, "Banamine", as he was waking from the anesthetic, and he was thrashing around violently, unable to get up. Afraid that he would fatally injure himself, she decided to put him out of his misery as soon as the "pain relievers" wore off and her vet could give him the lethal injection. She had a horse-sized hole dug on her property and prepared to say her goodbyes, when Stevie suddenly got more comfortable and stood up with a big sigh. Happily stunned by this reversal of the inevitable, she changed her mind, the hole was filled, and a conclusion made: Stevie would be fine, but no more Banamine!
Stevie certainly had a flair for the dramatic, but in other ways he could be very stoic about pain, he always looked years younger in the show ring, because adrenaline would kick in whenever there was an audience. We won an Open English Pleasure Championship in a class of professionals aboard their best and brightest, when Stevie was 20. It was my proudest blue ribbon ever, not to mention a ride that I wish everyone could experience in their lifetime! He was as proud that I was navigating him through the class as I was to be riding him! There was no doubt that Stevie loved attention, seeking it out in every way possible, even if it meant toothmarks! "Hey! Are you listening to me?" I'm still sporting the remains of one of his "love bites" on my thigh from the day before he died - the little booger always wanted to make sure everybody knew exactly how he felt.
The consummate Energizer Pony, Stevie could outlast everbody else - student riders, other (much, much younger) horses, even me. And don't let him catch you feeling sorry for him - he had way too much pride for any such nonesense! Well into retirement, arthritic body failing him, he'd sense somebody watching and puff himself up, putting on a show that inevitably caused someone to ask, "How is old is that horse, again?" I loved watching their faces when I revealed his vintage.
Stevie was always giving me a reason to smile. Like right now.
PSST: Do you have a Stevie story? I know I have many more! Post yours in the comments, and I'll write more soon!
Those of you who visit Girlbert regularly know that I'm an amateur photographer, a website designer, and now a watercolor student. And a lot of what you see on my site is focused in nature: birds, animals, flowers, and the local landscape. My creations are a reflection of my world, my life, the things I love. I photograph, pictify, and paint in an attempt to share the things I love with others.
"Follow your bliss."
~ Joseph Campbell
Since seeing "Finding Joe", a movie about the theories of writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell, I've been trying to do just that. One of my passions is expressing myself creatively, whether it's painting a picture, taking photos, rearranging the furniture, or just making sure dinner looks as good as it tastes! Thanks to cancer, I've been able to dabble in watercolors, learn more about photography, and mingle with some very encouraging artists and new friends at the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara. All this creating is making me happy, and Happiness is probably a road sign somewhere on the path to Bliss...
I'm super-pleased to announce that I'm currently showing three of my paintings at the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara, and have prints of them for sale to benefit the CCSB Wellness Programs. I also have some photography on display at The C Gallery in Los Alamos through March 7. Please check out the show if you get a chance!
So I'm double-happy, because I have a creative outlet, it's proving to be a lucrative effort, and now it's giving me a way to give back to the organization that started it all: Cancer Center of Santa Barbara. If it weren't for the classes I've taken, the encouragement I've received, and the connections I've made through CCSB, I wouldn't be nearly as far down the road to following my bliss as I've found myself lately. There's no turning back, either, because I find the path ahead lined with as many opportunities as oak trees and wildflowers!
The following poem was written and read aloud by my friend and fellow painting classmate, Libby Whaley, at the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara's "Art Heals" reception and art show on Friday night.
A twist of fate brought you to our door.
Welcomed, you came in and found a new family.
The teacher guided you with a message,
“You can paint whatever you want.”
And with that, you picked up a brush and
your creative legacy was born.
You didn’t know.
You had not been to this place, this space,
this moment in time.
And although your brain was under attack
by errant cells, your brush grew wings and the colors
of the paint danced upon your canvas.
Emotions caught within the tides of your life
began to flow. A wave washed over all of us.
We took notice of the compelling stories unfolding before us.
The colors of an emboldened life were set free to be,
to share love, to inspire, and live outside the lines.
As we painted our still life flowers, we watched
the evolving of an artist, unknown even to himself.
Your brushstrokes unveiled a personal style expressing
joy and movement, a happy heart danced.
And our hearts danced with you.
Although you could not outrun your fatal conclusion,
you knew just what to do.
You wrapped up your life and legacy with a beautiful
Art Exhibit, entitled, “Painting Toward Grace.”
How uncanny, as we had been privy to observe your
life already so full of grace.
Thank you Michael, for gracing us with your presence,
for inspiring us, for sharing your love and hugs.
In awe, we have watched you.
And now you have left us, but not without leaving
the essence of your spirit. It shall live on within the
joie de vivre of your paintings.
We are smiling with you now.
I met Michael Orchowski and his wife, Doedy, at a brain cancer support group at CCSB in 2009. I was touched by their story of strength and love, and encouraged by Michael's triumph over brain cancer and paralysis. But it was the Cancer Center's wonderful wellness offering, "Painting the Pictures of Health", where I really got to become friends with Michael and Doedy and the rest of our art class "family".
We lost our brother and Archangel Michael on Friday, November 25, just a week before his dying wish, an exhibition of his work, "which would expose many others to my joie de vivre in spite of this strong infirmity," was to open.
Michael's dream was realized on Thursday, and despite his physical absence, his spirit was undeniably present as people made their way through 33 Jewels Gallery, usually shoulder to shoulder, to view his lively paintings of positivity and hope. The energy was that of celebration and admiration. Michael would have been smiling with joy.
"Painting Toward Grace" was a fitting tribute to a man who inspired hope and healing in so many, myself included. I never doubted that Michael was a great man who had inspired many people or that he had a large circle of friends, but I was happily surprised at the turnout on Thursday. I knew Michael in the context of our art class, but as I made my way through the tightly packed crowd at 33 Jewels Gallery, listening to friends and admirers share stories and marvel at his paintings, I realized that our art group is just one of Michael's many families.
At right is a video of Michael describing some of his art and his process of painting through illness, taken by CCSB's Lisa Hashbarger. I'll let Michael take it from here:
"I fill my soul with love. The soul is much more encompassing than the mind, the mind is only a tool of the soul."
"This is how I want to finish my life - not in a bitter fashion, but in an uplifted fashion."
"This is what I want to acheive - the expression of the wish to live, and not giving in to complaints and doing things about the situation that we cannot change."
"It's difficult, but I'm not alone."
We'll all miss you, Michael. Thank you for leaving us with so much.